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Mila Semeshkina Wants To Rewrite The Rules For Women In Leadership Around The World "There are numerous successful, talented women out there, but for various reasons, they are not as prominently showcased or heard as their male counterparts."

By Tamara Pupic

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Mila Semeshkina

Interviewing Mila Semeshkina, the founder of international educational platform Lectera and the Women's Empowerment Council, has a very particular quality to it- the well-spoken, highly capable, and glamorous entrepreneur is honest and authentic in a way which, while we all praise, actually rarely demonstrate ourselves, or even encounter everyday.

Let me give you two examples of how Semeshkina's words make for a kind of intimacy that, although I was talking with someone whose accomplishments have merited her inclusion in a number of prestigious lists of top CEOs or top women in edtech around the world, I came to realize that she is a remarkably approachable person, and a woman who is evidently focused on adding value, instead of just being surface-level.

A globally accomplished entrepreneur, philanthropist, and thought leader in the fields of edtech, women's empowerment, and personal growth, Semeshkina is open about how her journey -that started with growing up in a small village in Krasnodar, Russia, to building what is now a successful career out of Dubai in the UAE- shaped her personality. "I am profoundly grateful for being born into a simple family, devoid of wealth, where I learned the value of shaping my own destiny, and pursuing my aspirations independently," Semeshkina says.

Now, while this might be a statement that most of us have already heard in different shapes and forms, Semeshkina adds a comment that shows you how truly down-to-earth she is. "Recently, I mingled with people born into affluence, those typically known as 'old money,'" she shares. "During these interactions, I realized my deep gratitude for my modest upbringing. There were times of hardship, and it's these experiences that cultivated my appreciation for life's simple pleasures. In contrast, growing up in wealth often makes it harder to find surprise and delight in the everyday. So, undoubtedly, my formative years have profoundly impacted me."

My second example of Semeshkina's honesty takes us back to the beginning of her career when she, having completed her education at Kuban State University and Lomonosov Moscow State University in Russia, worked on creating impactful marketing and public relations strategies for clients from Switzerland, Germany, the UAE, and the Commonwealth of Independent States. "When I was a top manager at various companies, I encountered blatant male chauvinism," she recalls. "I remember a particularly offensive incident at a bankers' meeting, where I was the main presenter. Despite my key role, I was asked to move from the table to the wall, simply because the table was for men. This incident, which occurred in a European country, left me deeply offended, especially since I was only 26 at the time. It frequently happened to me that my abilities and successes were overlooked, simply because of my gender and age. Thankfully, society has evolved considerably. The way I am accepted and respected now is noticeably different from those earlier days."

Related: Off The Beaten Track: Indra Nooyi, The First Woman Of Color To Run A Fortune 50 Company

Mila Semeshkina is the founder and CEO of Lectera.com, a pioneering global learning platform with more than three million users from 60 countries, and the Women's Empowerment Council, a global community of 30,000 women. Image courtesy: Mila Semeshkina

It should be obvious by now that Semeshkina's words, although delivered with care and delicacy, never bring half-truths. In the same manner, Semeshkina talks about her own personal development; as brave as she was to battle and overcome career setbacks, she also seems to have never shied away from critical introspection. "My leadership style has undergone a significant transformation," Semeshkina says. "In the past, I'm somewhat ashamed to admit, it was decidedly authoritarian. I was uncompromising and rigid, insisting on my way of doing things. However, over time, this has evolved into a mentorship style of leadership. I have immense affection for my team. Now, I focus on developing and advancing people, guiding them step by step."

In business, Semeshkina adds, she finds mentorship and having role models absolutely vital for success. "Without mentoring the team appropriately, they simply won't grow, but having role models in business and life is equally crucial," she says. "Observing someone achieve remarkable results makes you realize that it's possible; therefore, I believe role models are the proof of possibility."

A few years ago, Semeshkina noticed that the scarcity of female role models in business was a notable issue. That was the spark that resulted in her eventually establishing the Women's Empowerment Council in Dubai -which she describes as "the world's epicenter"- in 2021. "The idea for the Women's Empowerment Council came to me after a journalist asked me about my female role model," she says. "It was a moment of realization– I didn't have one... In the business world, while there are significantly more male leaders, this doesn't mean that successful women leaders are absent. Rather, it indicates that women are underrepresented and less vocal in these roles. There are numerous successful, talented women out there, but for various reasons, they are not as prominently showcased or heard as their male counterparts."

Based out of Dubai, the Women's Empowerment Council today claims to have grown into a community of 30,000 women from around the world. Its flagship event, the Women's Empowerment Convention (WE Convention), featured a stellar lineup of 65 speakers in 2023, which included notable names like model, author, and dietician Maye Musk, Wildberries founder and CEO Tatyana Bakalchuk,and Build an Empire CEO Elena Cardone. And Semeshkina is very clear about why she makes it a point to ensure there are women of this caliber on the stage of the WE Convention. "Women facing challenges often lack visible examples of what they can achieve, as such success stories are not widely shared or known," Semeshkina says. "Moreover, women often find themselves without varied scenarios for handling difficult life situations. Thus, when we invite women to the stage during the WE Convention, it is to present role models, to demonstrate that multiple successful approaches exist."

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Image courtesy: Mila Semeshkina

Here, Semeshkina adds that her mission with the Council is also to educate women on the untold stories and invisible layers of success. "A moment from our last WE Convention exemplifies the resonance of shared narratives," she says. "A leading entrepreneur, typically reserved, eventually accepted our invitation after persistent encouragement. Her rare public address received a standing ovation, highlighting the profound potential of her insights. Later, in a reflective conversation, she recognized the value of more frequent public engagement, acknowledging how her experiences could inspire others. This episode reinforces the vital role influential leaders play in reshaping societal perceptions of women's achievements."

Moments like these are thus what one can expect from the 2024 edition of WE Convention, which will be held at the Atlantis Royal Dubai on April 20-21. Included in the speakers list this time around are names internationally renowned tennis champion Maria Sharapova, H.H. Sheikha Dr. Shamma bint Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan, Chairperson of the Board of Directors, Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalid Al Nahyan Cultural and Educational Institutions, and Nayla Al Khaja, the UAE's first female director.

Besides the Women's Empowerment Council, the majority of Semeshkina's time is dedicated to growing Lectera, the edtech platform that she launched whose comprehensive curriculum -with offerings in English, German, Spanish, Hindi, and Russian- serves almost three million people from 60 countries. "The edtech industry is at a pivotal point where significant change is long overdue," Semeshkina says. "The technologies currently in use, I believe, are somewhat outdated, and we at Lectera have been among the pioneers in incorporating artificial intelligence into our educational platform. Now, we're delving deep into integrating augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and blockchain technologies into our platform. These innovations represent a shift in how users will interact with content in the future. In education, blockchain technology holds tremendous potential, and we focus on harnessing it uniquely. We're committed to exploring and implementing these advanced technologies to fundamentally enhance and transform the educational experience for our users."

However, the company's currently successful trajectory did not come easy, as it was launched during the COVID-19 crisis, which was inhospitable to most businesses. "People, who previously consumed content on the go, were now stationary at home, necessitating a different approach in our communication with the audience," Semeshkina recalls. "Being a young business, these changes directly impacted our monetization strategies. The way people approached content purchase transformed, and there was a surge in the distribution of free content. Adapting to these new consumption patterns and finding effective ways to monetize our content posed a significant challenge." The first two years of Lectera, Semeshkina continues, were a period of intense struggle for many other reasons too. "I remember it as a time of nightly tears and constant setbacks," she says. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong- from operational hiccups, to issues with monetization. The entire platform, along with our business processes, needed a complete overhaul. It was a test of resilience and adaptability, not just for the business, but for me personally. I had to reinvent myself, break down my previous self, to construct a new version that could rise to these extraordinary challenges."

Related: Striking A Balance: Juggling Parenthood And Entrepreneurship in the GCC

Image courtesy: Mila Semeshkina

And so, is there a life philosophy that guides Semeshkina through all kinds of challenges in life and business? "My mantra is, 'I don't know how, but it will work'," she declares. "This approach always lights a spark within me. I start with one step, followed by another, and gradually, I see progress unfolding. This mantra particularly resonates with me in moments of fear or uncertainty. Acknowledging that I don't have all the answers, but moving forward regardless, because the goal matters deeply." At the same time, Semeshkina points out that her second core life principle is realism. "I approach life without rose-tinted glasses," she says. "It's crucial for me to fully recognize and value my successes as well as my failures. This perspective extends to appreciating my relationships, opportunities, strengths, and weaknesses. I'm not afraid to acknowledge my shortcomings, as this honesty is fundamental to my growth and integrity."

As we finish our conversation, Semeshkina reveals the ultimate pillar of her approach to life which, we both agree, is often overlooked by many. "I'm always a priority in my life," she says. "My interests and well-being come first. This might sound self-centered, but it's a principle I live by. Whether in the context of my family or romantic relationships, I maintain that if I am not happy and fulfilled, then it's impossible to maintain harmony in other areas of my life. Therefore, it all starts with me ensuring my own happiness and well-being as a precursor to contributing positively to the lives of others."

Mila Semeshkina shares her tips for female entrepreneurs

1. Embrace being an entrepreneur "The first and foremost rule is not to fear being a female entrepreneur. Embrace it wholeheartedly. Women have every potential to achieve the same level of success as men in entrepreneurship. The key is not to be intimidated by gender stereotypes or societal expectations. Believe in your capabilities, and proceed with confidence."

2. Aim to be at the top of your field "Always strive to excel in your area of expertise. Your goal should be to become the most knowledgeable and skilled professional in any room you enter. This level of proficiency and dedication ensures success and transcends gender-based boundaries. When you're the most competent person in the room, your gender becomes irrelevant to your ability to succeed and lead."

3. Leverage the abundant opportunities in the UAE "The UAE offers a wealth of opportunities for female entrepreneurs. The environment is increasingly supportive, with numerous clubs, platforms, and workshops dedicated to women in business. The Dubai government, in particular, provides significant support for female entrepreneurs. Take advantage of these resources. Engage in networking, pursue self-realization, and utilize the programs available for support. The country is progressively focusing on empowering women in business, creating a thriving ecosystem for female entrepreneurship, and offering more opportunities each year for women to excel in the business world."

Related: No Holding Back: Former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.

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